Being an old woman was hard work, but being a princess again was difficult in some ways too. Firstly, there was the matter of being gracious to guests who saw nothing but my title. Then there was the knowledge that I could never accept any of them as my future king or my relatives—Lady Emilie reinforced that fact throughout the day. She prodded her son to simper at me during the various games and amusements while she prowled nearby like a high-society jackal. Last but not least was how time crawled by. I was afraid I would be a party prisoner forever until the sun began sinking towards the horizon. People drifted off the grounds and filed back into the palace, looking forward to the evening banquet.
None more than me, though. My gaze must have strayed from my plate to the great oak doors on the other end of the dining hall a thousand times before the main course was served.
“You know, chewing your food works just as well, Kristal.”
I twitched, glanced over at my smirking mother, and then down at my meal. Everything had been picked to pieces. I shifted in my chair and grabbed a napkin to torture for awhile.
“Still worried over your mystery gift?” She reached up to tuck a piece of my hair back behind my ear.
“Over who it’s from is my guess,” said my father, scratching his beard. “I admit I’ve been wondering myself since you and Minh came in last night.”
“Yet you still didn’t let me open the letter that came with it.” I knew my frown was on the verge of becoming a pout.
My parents shared a laugh over the top of my head.
“There’s a time and place for everything under the sun.” A glint in his blue eyes, my father set down his goblet. “Now and here are as good as any, I think.”
Pulse fluttering, I watched as he waved the nearest page over and said something in a low voice. The man nodded before hurrying out through a side door.
I’d nearly wrung my napkin in half by the time the oak doors creaked open. Silence, broken only by crackles from the twin fireplaces, settled over the dining hall as servants began to file in between the two banquet tables flanking ours.
“Our daughter wishes to see your gifts and thank you all for your generosity,” my mother explained to the guests.
Bribery described the situation with more honesty. Each tribute was paraded in front of me while the givers raised their goblets and the onlookers applauded. There were bolts of bright silk from Elmhaven, jeweled hairpins from Shearwater, and strings of pearls from the southern Aura Coast. The Silver Valley gave me a golden music box topped with a bird that sang and flapped its burnished wings thanks to clever gearwork. I was informed by the servant reading the roster that I was now the proud owner of a milk-white palfrey, one of the finest ever bred on the Gryphon Plains. Gowns, jewelry, flattery—they came in a flood.
Accompanying it all, of course, were chests brimming with gold coins and precious stones. Not one of which could have been spared for a lonely beggar woman on the roadside.
I inclined my head and mumbled responses that resembled gratitude until I was sure I’d go howling mad.
“These last gifts,” announced the page reading the list, pulling me back from the brink, “are sent with warm regards by…er…‘your newest admirer’.” He apologized with a grimacing smile for the lack of name. “He gives them in the hope that it will be the first link in a bond between not only our countries, but between Her Highness and himself.”
What little air seemed left in the hall felt too hot and close as the man bowed and presented me with an unsealed envelope. I looked to both of my parents and Minh, all three of them perched on the edges of their seats.
“Go on, Kristal,” the last said. “Open it.”
With shaking fingers, I did. My brow became almost as creased as the paper inside when I unfolded it.
“Ten boxes of turnips. Twenty sides of beef. Seventeen sacks of flour,” I read. “Are…are these receipts?”
“Huh. Maybe there’s something on the other side?” my father suggested.
Sure enough, I flipped the paper over to find a letter scrawled there. Despite the occasional ink stain I made out the writing well enough.
My sweetest princess, it began, first allow me to wish you a joyful and prosperous fifteenth year, as well as many more to come. I know that’s a tall order to fill, but it never hurts to ask, does it?
Second, let me say that Fate works in mysterious ways. Or she’s been mad from the get-go—it’s hard to tell sometimes. Whichever the case, I’m grateful for her latest fit. When I was struck with the idea for this venture I knew the odds of success were slim. More likely nonexistent. Meeting you and your cousin on the street, though, has given me new reason to hope.
Cold dread trickled down my spine. Images welled up, drowning all other thoughts: the cart filled with crates; Harald grumbling as he climbed in with them; Griselda’s razor-edged stare; Wilfried raising his munched-on hat. They had been real, but to what degree?
Third, the letter continued, I have to compliment your skills in glamour magic. It was no flaw in your spell that betrayed your true identity. Cestiss—pardon me, Griselda—simply has a knack for seeing through illusions.
The blood drained right out of my face. Cestiss. Not as in Cestiss Grayraven, surely. I read the sentence several more times, but there was no mistake. Sun and stars, no wonder she’d been careful not to make contact—I would have sensed the sorcery she’d used to disguise her two companions and herself. The same power that allowed her to raise hordes of undead, command diabolical spirits, unnaturally prolong her life, and claim the title of most powerful necromage in the world. Power Minh or I would have had no chance of countering.
I had to take a gulp of wine before continuing.
Pardon my boldness in saying so, but I did notice a few wrinkles in your performance. For example, middle-aged women don’t usually blush every time a man glances at them. It also would have been impossible for you to be named after someone who was supposed to be much younger. And though you did your best with that name slip-up, it really was too late.
However, I don’t have the heart to encourage you to practice. Deceit comes as naturally as breathing to far too many people. It was a pleasure to meet someone who can’t help but be who she is.
Did that compliment carry more or less weight coming from a skilled liar?
Also, please pass my regards to your cousin. Lord Minh is proving himself a brilliant swordsman as well as pyromage, and Garrick (who made a rather charming Harald, I think) speaks highly of him. Well, “I can’t believe that little match-licking bastard singed me! I’ll make new boots out of his hide!” passes for glowing praise from him anyway.
Reaching over, grabbing my cousin’s head, and giving one sharp twist was all it would have taken for the werewolf general to have his boots too. My stomach felt like a bag full of snakes. I’d realized who Wilfried was—his choice of friends left no room for doubt—but I couldn’t bring myself to even think the name waiting for me at the bottom. Even so, I gathered my frayed courage around me and rushed into reading the last of the letter.
Lastly, I regret not being able to tell you these things in person, but I worried that everyone in the room trying to kill me would be too much of a distraction. It’s my hope, though, that one day I can speak with you like I did last night. Without the fear, anger, and mistrust that has festered between our countries for so long.
Cestiss and Garrick were right, you know. Rude and annoying, but right. I am a dreamer. My bloodline is infamous for this trait, in fact. However, we’ve also proven that we have the determination to achieve what others believed to be impossible.
You, my sweet, are my dream. Which is why I’m offering a marriage proposal of my own along with these gifts. Not just the trinkets you see, but a promise too: I will never raise a hand against you, on or off the battlefield. Unless reality becomes inverted and I’m suddenly wrong, you’ll be putting this vow to the test soon enough.
Peace must start somewhere. Between a kind-hearted princess and an infatuated fathead is as good a place as any.
The Stars Watch Over You and Yours,
“Kristal, what’s wrong?” Too much white showed around my mother’s eyes as she pressed a hand to my forehead. “You’re paler than death.”
Or the creature who had duped Minh, me, and our entire kingdom. Who had taken us right to the doorstep of our home. Who had made my blood burn with a simple touch.
Hands shaking, I gave my mother the letter of horrors. Her brows switched between trying to pinch together and darting for her hairline while she read. Murmurs began to swirl around the hall, but I hardly heard them over the roar of my own thoughts.
Zephyr LeMarta, king of our country’s evil eastern twin, had had me in his grasp. Minh would have given his life to protect me, I didn’t doubt that, but he couldn’t have held off a night-born, moon beast, and necromage on his own. King Zephyr could have killed him, taken me hostage, and brought my parents—my people—to their knees.
Instead, he’d made jokes, delivered my birthday presents, and sworn to never harm me.
You, my sweet, are my dream.
I pressed my hands over my ears and shook my head until I felt dizzy. A lovesick night-born suitor—he was my nightmare.
“How extraordinary,” my mother said at last. Her eyebrows had settled on high ground. “Albrecht, read this.” She handed him the accursed letter.
My father’s expression began going through the same rigorous paces as hers had.
“Oh, dear. Is something the matter, Your Majesty?” called out one of the guests. I wasn’t surprised to when I traced the voice to Lady Emilie, fan fluttering and stare hungry.
“Hardly.” Folding the paper back up, my father smiled at the assembled nobles. “It seems my daughter’s beauty has tamed a beast. Zephyr LeMarta has presented himself as one of her suitors.”
Murmurs turned to gasps and even a shriek or two. I wished I was like a snail so I could have sprinkled salt on myself and melted away—anything to escape the feeling of every gaze in the room fastening onto me.
Wood scraped over stone as someone at my table leapt from their seat. I heard the jangle of chain mail a moment before a rough hand clamped around my chin. My head was jerked up and around, putting me face to face with my former worst nightmare.
“And what has our pretty princess been doing to attract the attention of the east?” hissed Archmagus Griet, nails biting into my skin.
“Nothing!” It came out a squeak. Her eyes were the same bright blue at a candle flame’s heart. They paralyzed me like a snake’s did a bird—she probably could have eaten me whole just as easily too.
Growling, she shook me hard enough to make my teeth rattle. “Don’t lie to me, girl! I can rack the truth out of you, princess or no!”
Something knocked Griet’s away. In a blink I found my parents and cousin standing between me and the livid head of the temples.
“Touch my daughter again and I’ll have you thrown in a dungeon cell. Archmagus or no.” My mother’s tone should have had frost forming on the windows, and I wished I’d inherited her backbone along with her looks.
Griet showed her usual subtlety with a snarl. “She’s corresponding with the enemy—you admitted it in front of the entire court! It’s within my right to question her and ensure the safety of the kingdom.”
“Your dedication to your duty is appreciated,” my father cut in as my mother started looking around for the nearest weapon. “However, I believe Kristal receiving an unexpected letter hardly counts as correspondence. Certainly not a conspiracy.” He paused. “Unless you have reason to believe she’s slipped a great deal more past your notice?”
The room held its collective breath as Griet’s mouth opened, snapped shut, and tightened into a white line. Tears stung the backs of my eyes, and not entirely from terror. Minh, my mother and father—they risked earning the archmage’s suspicion, and worse, her rancor, by leaping to my defense, but they had done so without a moment’s thought. Me? I could only hide behind the living bulwark my family provided, silent, trembling, and stunned by my own selfishness.
“No,” Griet said at last, slowly. She had little other choice. To say yes would have been to admit I’d made fools of her and her holy order, not to mention publicly create a breach between them and the royal family. The archmage was ruthless, not stupid. Her lips twisted into something vaguely like a smile, the lines of age and bitterness etched into her face deepening. “No, of course not. Forgive me, my king. The outrage of this news has dulled my mind. Our princess would have no part in this incident other than being its victim. I should be ferreting out the details of this cargo’s arrival instead, starting with the servants who received it. If you will excuse me?”
“Of course, Archmagus.”
With that, she marched out of the dining hall, the battered armor she always wore (even when sleeping, according to the rumors) clanking. Heart still corked up in my throat, I touched the stinging scratches she’d left as souvenirs on my cheek. No wonder Zephyr LeMarta had been able to waltz across our border. We were too busy attacking one another to pay attention to the real enemy.
“Well.” My father smoothed the front of his doublet and resumed his seat, motioning for Minh and my mother to do the same. “Let’s see what sort of taste a night-born has in gifts, eh?”
There was a smattering of lackluster laughter. He nodded at the servants still gathered around the crates, and they went to work on prying them open while the page with the roster cleared his throat.
“Zephyr LeMarta sends chests of gold to be donated to the people of Matroi in any way Her Highness sees fit, bolts of cloth to be made into clothing for its poor, and—” He blinked and reread the next bit to himself. “And three unicorn horns for medicines and charms to be used at her discretion! Three!” he shouted, losing all composure and waving his arms above his head.
Gasps and exclamations followed as the jeweled chest holding the rare items was opened. My jaw dropped and refused to close again. The alicorns alone were priceless. Once ground up and made into a remedy I could use them to heal anything. Sickness and poison. Wounds and burns. Even blindness and loss of hearing.
Zephyr LeMarta may have been a liar, but he was a generous one.
“Finally,” said the page, restoring some semblance of order, “accessories for Princess Kristal to take with her to the borders. May she never need to use them for anything other than decoration.”
Two servants set a shield and beautiful recurved bow inlaid with mother of pearl in front of me. A golden unicorn, my family crest, reared on the first’s bright surface.
“Excellent craftsmanship. They may be heathens, but they know how to make some pretty toys,” my father commented. He started to run his fingers down the bow, but stopped to give me a sidelong look. “Of course, it will take several months of training before you can do much more than admire them. That is, if you intend to do more?”
I looked out at the ruling families of the kingdom. At their empty smiles and expectant stares. I turned again to Zephyr LeMarta’s gifts. To use both them and the ones I was born with, I would have to trade my home for the battlefield. The familiar for uncertainty. Safety for death, pain, and blood.
It was a pleasure to meet someone who can’t help but be who she is.
My hands only shook a little as they curled around the bow. I couldn’t hide behind others forever. I wouldn’t. People needed me for more than producing heirs. Out in the world was where I would find a way to serve them.
And where I would discover whether I had what it took to become the person they thought I was.